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This Week in PubHub: Women and Family

March 11, 2011

(Kyoko Uchida manages PubHub, the Foundation Center's online catalog of foundation-sponsored publications. In her last post, she highlighted several reports that examine the role and perceptions of labor unions, both private and public, in American life.)

To mark International Women's Day earlier this week as well as National Women's History Month, PubHub has been featuring reports in March about the issues women face today. This week the focus is on women and the family -- how women's roles both inside and outside the family are changing and, in turn, shaping the definition of family itself.

Demographic trends are changing the face of motherhood in the United States. According to The New Demography of American Motherhood, a report from the Pew Research Center, between 1990 and 2008 the share of births to women age 35 and older, those with some college education, Latino/Hispanic women, and the foreign-born grew significantly. The study also found that even as the overall birth rate fell by 20 percent (presumably due to more women not having children), a record 41 percent of births in 2008 were to unmarried women, up from 28 percent in 1990, reflecting both a decline in the percentage of adults who are married and the rising birth rate among unmarried mothers. Moreover, in an April 2009 survey, 87 percent of respondents pointed to "the joy of having children" as an important reason for deciding to have a child, while 47 percent also said "it just happened." In addition, the survey found that 33 percent of Americans believed that more women having babies after age 40 was "a bad thing for society," while 28 percent disapproved of women undergoing fertility treatment and 38 percent disapproved of more women not ever having children.

Attitudes and opinions about trends in family structure is the subject of the Pew Research Center report The Public Renders a Split Verdict on Changes in Family Structure. Among other things, the report found that Americans were sharply divided over the growing number of unmarried or gay and lesbian couples and single women raising children; about mothers of young children working outside of the home; and about women not having children -- though women and Latinos/Hispanics were among those more likely to be accepting of such trends. Yet even among this relatively tolerant group, the rising numbers of women not having children and mothers of young children working were seen as problematic.

The issue of paid family leave becomes even more urgent in this context, as women, who traditionally assume the role of primary caregiver -- not only to their children but also to family members who become sick -- are also often the only caregiver. In Leaves That Pay: Employer and Worker Experiences With Paid Family Leave in California, the Center for Economic and Policy Research examines how well the nation's first comprehensive paid family leave program has served employees, especially low-wage and female workers, as well as parents, families, and employers. The report found that men were offered better replacement wages and other benefits compared with women, as were managers and professionals in higher-paying jobs compared with others. Still, the authors argue, if a key obstacle to gender equality in the workplace has been women's disproportionate burden of caregiving at home, paid family leave not only mitigates the impact of caring for children or parents on a woman's earnings, it also serves to encourage men's participation in caregiving.

A mother's role as primary caregiver can lead to serious consequences when she does not have adequate support. The Urban Institute issue brief Infants of Depressed Mothers Living in Poverty: Opportunities to Identify and Serve notes that 11 percent of infants living in poverty are being raised by mothers suffering from severe depression -- a figure that jumps to 55 percent when mild and moderate forms of depression are included. While age, family structure, domestic violence, substance abuse, and health problems are all factors in the onset of depression, it is usually treatable -- a fact that leads the brief's authors to call for more rigorous efforts to identify and treat depressed mothers through public benefit programs they are already enrolled in.

What do these trends and challenges say about the changing nature of women's roles vis-à-vis the family, the workplace, and society? What successful strategies or programs are helping women and women's advocates to advance gender equality in the workplace, in the home, and in the public sphere? And what more could philanthropy do to support women in the U.S. and abroad? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.

And don't forget to visit PubHub, where you can browse more than a hundred reports on women and women's issues.

-- Kyoko Uchida

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